Thursday, June 11, 2015

"Ultimate Spider-Man" Editorial: Harry Osborn as Venom

Regular readers of my blog will know that I’ve thrown many a criticism at Ultimate Spider-Man. I’ve made my arguments about the numerous wasted opportunities and Nick Fury’s apparent villainy, and I’ve used the phrase “Nova, you’re an idiot” a lot more than I thought I would.

And I try to be an open-minded reviewer. I mean, I don’t go into each episode determined to hate it. It just kind of happens for various reasons. And I do my best to point out episodes where the show really shines, whether it be individual episodes or just aspects of them.

But Ultimate Spider-Man is a very divisive show. And one of the things that has sparked possibly the most complaints aside from the show’s humor is the fact that Harry Osborn, traditionally the second Green Goblin, becomes this show’s version of Venom.

Well, if I wanted to keep my opinions to myself, I wouldn’t have started a blog.

So here’s my two cents.

On this blog, I’ve covered both Spectacular Spider-Man and Ultimate Spider-Man so far, and someday I’ll be venturing into the territories of Spider-Man: the Animated Series, Spider-Man Unlimited, and Spider-Man: the New Animated Series. Each of these shows are fundamentally different in tone and style, and that can easily be seen in how each show handles their Venom storyline.

Venom is one of the most popular Spider-Man characters, and very likely the most popular Spider-Man character. Naturally, nearly every Spider-Man show since Venom’s creation a few decades back has included a version of the symbiote storyline.

Looking at you, Spider-Man: TNAS.
Spider-Man: TAS did a relatively straightforward version with the main difference being the symbiote hitching a ride to Earth on a space shuttle as opposed to Spider-Man sticking his hand in an alien machine during the cosmic conflict known as the Secret Wars.

"Should I ask Reed Richards to examine it while he's here? ...Nah."
And ever since TAS showed us the famous church scene where Spider-Man rejects the symbiote happening at night (originally, it was daytime), retellings and adaptations (like Spider-Man 3) generally followed suit.

When Spectacular Spider-Man came along, they decided to make Eddie Brock Peter Parker’s best friend in order to play up their similarities and make Eddie’s downfall that much more tragic. As well as differentiating themselves from the more iconic and faithful adaptation instead of just trying to copy it.

When Ultimate Spider-Man was still just a bunch of randomly-scribbled notes in a notebook, one of those sentences referred to Harry Osborn becoming Venom. I’ll admit, I’ve accused Man of Action of making a buttload of boneheaded decisions regarding this show. Making Harry Osborn into Venom is not one of them.

Now, many of the arguments against things like Harry becoming Venom or the Human Torch being black boil down to the simple fact that it’s not the way it was in the comics. And that’s one of the inherent problems with adapting comics into TV shows or movies. Each adaptation wants to adapt the classic characters, costumes, stories, and moments, but doing the same thing over and over with no variation gets old fast. This is where each adaptation puts their own mark or twist on the familiar material.

Sometimes, you get a complete reinvention of something everybody thought had already been done the only way it could be done, like when Heath Ledger astonished audiences with a rather unconventional take on the Joker.

Sometimes, you get something that’s different just for the sake of being different. Like when Smallville decided that the 5th dimensional cosmic prankster Mr. Mxyzptlk would be better adapted as a foreign exchange student with luck powers named Mikhail.

Wow, it's like he stepped off the page... and was nowhere to be seen on the screen.
And that’s an important distinction. Creators need to ask themselves if, by changing something, it will open up untapped story possibilities… or if it’s just there to surprise the audience and little more. Once the flash of “Oh, you changed it!” wears off, is there any substance to what’s left?

And with Harry as Venom, yes. Yes there is.

In the comics, Harry Osborn was a drug-addict-turned supervillain. This has been adapted into both Spider-Man: TAS as well as Spectacular Spider-Man. (Loosely, what with the fact that you’re not allowed to show kids using drugs in a cartoon.) Once again, this means that going down the same old road with the character is redundant and old hat.

And so, the writers blended these two oft-told tales into one storyline.

And it works so well.

Harry’s comic book turn to villainy is taken and given a twist, but it keeps a lot of the hallmarks of the character.

Strained relationship with his dad? Check.

Addiction? Check. (Albeit to the symbiote, not the Goblin Formula.)

Rivalry against Spider-Man while beings friends with Peter? Check.

The friend-turned-dark-doppelganger plot from Spectacular Spider-Man is mixed with Harry’s rise as the Green Goblin and both parts become stronger by being merged. Harry, with a neglectful father, is a dark mirror of Peter’s home life in the same way that Venom is a twisted copy of Spider-Man. The thematic elements not only work in tandem, but also become stronger.

And the fact that Harry becomes a villain not only while his father is around, but also before his father’s turn to villainy puts a twist on the whole situation that not only throws the audience for a loop, but keeps us guessing. And then the story keeps going. It’s not just going, “Hey, look! Harry Osborn’s Venom! Weird, huh?” and calling it a day. It’s not just a flash in the pan, it’s the ongoing storyline of the first season. And one of the best parts of the season.

Maybe you wanted to see a more classic version of Venom. Maybe you prefer seeing Harry as the Green Goblin. Maybe, for whatever reason, you simply don’t like what Ultimate Spider-Man did to Harry Osborn. That’s absolutely fair. And you know what? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments.

But every time I talk about this show, the words of a commenter on my Review of “Great Power” come to mind.

“Because the show wants to expand with its concepts, not be restricted by them.”

And I think that Ultimate Spider-Man’s biggest success in that regard has been how the writers have used Venom.

So I’ll say it. Good job, Man of Action. You did this one right.

"Who are you, again?"
You’re welcome.


  1. great article, I have nothing against Harry as Venom (though probably the worst episode of the series is a part of that arc).

    Ever thought of doing a top ten list of worst Smallville adaptations of DC characters?

    1. Well, not until I've watched all of Smallville, but that sounds like something I'll probably do someday.

    2. speaking of that, ever read the comicsalliance smallville recaps? they're pretty funny

    3. I have now.

      Back in the day, I questioned why I should ever watch Smallville. "No tights," I thought, "No flights. What's the point?"

      Now I know. Smallville exists to be alternately praised and made fun of. Looks like I need to start binge-watching....

  2. Now if only this concept had a hint of artistry in its execution. Seriously, the MAU would be significantly better (or at least less boring) if there was some cinematic flair, some spectacle in its direction, instead of looking like a bunch of drawings walking around and throwing the occasional punch.

    - That One Anon

    1. I'm going to have to disagree with you a little bit.

      I dislike the MAU's realistically-proportioned, boring-to-look-at, barely moving style as much as the next guy, but after the two-and-a-half seasons they've aired so far, I would actually say that the Venom arc is one of the best parts of the MAU in terms of animation.

      The final fights in "Venom" and "Venomous" (and the Venom vs. Batroc fight) are moody, fast-paced, the frame rate goes up, AND the camera starts using angles that I'd almost call cinematic.

      Of course, this is relatively speaking. They're still not anything I'd call "great."

      But even so, I'd say that USM's fight scenes were head and shoulders above Avengers Assemble's standing and talking. And I'd even take that above Hulk and the Agents of SMASH's lazy shortcuts.

    2. That's fair, after all I haven't seen these episodes since their original air dates.

      Also, separate episodes called "Venom" AND "Venomous"? Real smooth, writers.

      - That One Anon

    3. "Venomous" has an alternate title on iTunes and some reruns of "Venom Attack."

      I think they ran out of puns almost right away.